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New Measles Outbreak Hits Portland Area

August 19, 2019

Health officials are battling a new outbreak of measles in the Portland area.

Since July, nine people in Multnomah and Clackamas counties have contracted the highly contagious disease, according to a statement by the Multnomah County Health Department. The latest patient was diagnosed Friday in Multnomah County, which now has four cases, with the rest in Clackamas County. All but one patient are children and none was immunized against the disease.

The Health Department said there was no risk to the general public. Those infected have agreed to stay at home and avoid going out into the public where they might infect strangers. But the case count could go up.

"People who don't vaccinate tend to cluster today socially," Vines said. "That's why we expect to see more cases. But hopefully, there will be no new public exposures." 

The first case was in early July in an individual in Clackamas County who had measles-like symptoms. About July 20, a case was diagnosed, and public health officials began to investigate. They've contacted patients and their families to come up with a plan to curtail the disease and sent out a blast email to providers, warning them to be on the lookout for new cases.

This is the third outbreak in Oregon this year, including one that largely affected Clark County with a total of 71 cases. In Oregon, there have been 23 people infected this year, the highest number since 1991, when 100 people contracted the disease. Most of the cases have been in children, with about half in school.

The outbreaks mirror an increase in measles nationwide, with more than 1,000 cases in 30 states so far this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s the highest number since 2000, which the CDC declared the virus eliminated.

But with an increasing number of people questioning the safety of vaccines and the need to be immunized, the virus has made a comeback. Health officials worry about people dying. Measles kills one to two people in a 1,000. When the virus was rampant, 450 to 500 people a year died in the United States. Worldwide, the disease caused 110,000 fatalities in 2017.

The outbreaks have largely affected unvaccinated people. In Oregon and Washington state, most have been children, with half in Oregon old enough to go to school, the statement said. When someone at school gets sick, students who are not vaccinated and have been exposed have to stay home for 21 days to ensure that they don’t spread the virus.

Measles is highly infectious. It spreads through coughing and sneezing and can linger in the air for up to two hours. It causes a runny nose, cough and fever followed by a rash. Besides death, it can also cause permanent hearing loss, blindness, pneumonia and a life-threatening brain infection.

The disease is preventable with vaccination. Oregon requires school-aged children to be vaccinated against measles and other infectious diseases such as polio and hepatitis. The measles vaccine is highly effective. Two doses of the measles, mumps and rubella or whooping cough vaccine are about 97 percent effective. That drops to 93 percent for one dose.

Oregon is among 15 states that allow parents to opt out of vaccines for philosophical reasons. A bill in the past legislative session in Salem would have removed the personal exemption but it garnered a lot of opposition and was killed.

Rates of unvaccinated children for philosophical reasons in Oregon have been on the rise since 2015, with 7.5 percent of children in kindergarten currently not vaccinated with one or more shots because of a nonmedical exemption.

With school starting, health officials urged parents to get their children vaccinated.

“Measles is a serious illness, people are miserable for a week and very contagious while sick,” Vines said. “The vaccine is safe and effective; it keeps kids healthy and in school. Fully vaccinated kids also protect their siblings, friends and teachers.”

Those who don’t get vaccinated can pose a threat to pregnant women, children too young to be vaccinated and medically fragile people. And if they get sick, they’ll have to miss classes and sports and other activities. For more information, the public is invited to attend a free parent-led workshop.

Vines said public health officials are no longer surprised by new measles cases.

"As long as there are pockets of people who are delaying or declining vaccination, this may be our new normal," Vines said. 

You can reach Lynne Terry at [email protected].